The Brooklyn Nets were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs when the Philadelphia 76ers completed their gentleman’s sweep at home on Tuesday, 122-100. It was a disappointing end to an incredibly exciting season in Brooklyn. No one expected them to be this good, this fast. No one expected them to fall so flat, so woefully in Game 5.
Brooklyn’s focus now shifts to the offseason, where it’ll have their fair share of choices to make. The Nets have turned themselves into an ideal destination for any free agent — max, mid-level, minimum, and everthing in between. The stigma surrounding Brooklyn has been erased under general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. The Nets are a team on the rise, who have built a culture upon good ol’ hard work and player development.
The incremental progress management preached has swelled with the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2015. Players around the NBA have taken notice. At the very least, the Nets should get a meeting with several of the top free agents.
The talent available in this summer’s free agent pool could fill Team USA’s Olympic roster. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and Khris Middleton will each hit the open market on July 1. Those are only the top names. Other players available include Julius Randle, Nikola Vucevic, Nikola Mirotic, DeAndre Jordan, Bojan Bogdanovic, J.J. Redick, Derrick Rose, and former Net Brook Lopez.
The Nets have the potential to sign any one of those players to the roster next season. They also have three attractive draft picks in this year’s NBA Draft: their own (17th), Denver’s (27th) and New York’s high second-rounder (31st).
At long last, the Nets are in the driver’s seat of their own future. But before they can sign free agents, they’ll need to clear the requisite cap space to do so.
Brooklyn absolutely must trade Allen Crabbe
Crabbe has a player option in his contract for the 2019-20 season worth $18.5 million. He is absolutely going to exercise that option.
But once Crabbe exercises that player option, the Nets will not have cap space for a max free agent. That’s because D’Angelo Russell is a restricted free agent and has a cap hold of $21 million until he and the Nets either agree to a new contract or part ways. Brooklyn can exceed the salary cap to re-sign Russell, meaning they can sign a max free agent first, then agree to terms with their All-Star point guard on a new deal.
But they can’t do that with Crabbe’s $18.5 million salary on the books.
Brooklyn was once a team that absorbed unwanted salary, so long as a draft pick was attached to the contract. It’s how they acquired Denver’s first-round pick this season — they took on Kenneth Faried’s contract —and how they recouped a first-round pick in 2018 (taking on DeMarre Carroll, who also proved to be a useful rotation player) after the previous regime dealt it and many others in the infamous 2013 trade with Boston. The Nets will likely need to reverse roles and attach one of their picks to Crabbe’s contract in any trade.
In Crabbe’s defense, he was in and out of the rotation, hampered by injury. He averaged 13 points on 48 percent three-point shooting during a 13-game stretch between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13. He’s made at least four threes in a game eight times this season, including a 27-point outburst against Dallas where he made seven triples. He could help another team.
Brooklyn may have been better served moving Crabbe at the deadline for an expiring contract. But mid-season moves have an impact on team chemistry, and chemistry is one reason the Nets made the playoffs this year.
The Nets must now find a team that has the cap space to absorb Crabbe’s salary, but also isn’t expecting to use that cap space to sign a max free agent this summer. That list is short. Sacramento desperately wants a pick in this year’s draft, and Crabbe is from the West Coast and played his college ball in the nearby Bay Area.
Other options could include Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas, Utah, or New Orleans. The Lakers could also be in play for an Allen Crabbe trade if they fail to sign or acquire a max free agent. If they don’t trade for Anthony Davis, they can sign him as a free agent in 2020, when Crabbe’s salary comes off the books.
Limit the max free agent search to the cream of the crop
Kevin Durant to the Knicks is not a foregone conclusion. Neither are Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, Klay Thompson staying in Golden State, nor are both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris re-signing in Philly. But signing the wrong max free agent is worse than signing no max free agent at all. The Nets have max cap space, but they can’t (and likely won’t) misuse it.
The obvious first option is Durant. The obvious second option is Leonard. If the Nets are dubbing Russell their point guard of the future (more on that below), there is no need to meet with Irving or Walker. Brooklyn already has Joe Harris, who has a similar skill set to Thompson’s — though if Thompson is dead set on coming to Brooklyn, the Nets should obviously sign him in a heartbeat. There is a glaring drop-off in talent after those top players. Brooklyn needs a killer, and second- or third-tier stars won’t make them championship contenders.
The Nets should also consider that Kristaps Porzingis becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and he could sign his qualifying offer — a one-year deal in Dallas that allows him to enter unrestricted free agency in 2020. If Brooklyn doesn’t sign Durant or Leonard, Porzingis has the killer mentality. Brooklyn will want to have cap flexibility in the event he decides to leave Dallas to return to New York.
What if they miss on the best of the best free agents?
Does Jimmy Butler make sense for this Brooklyn team? Probably not, given their timeline and his.
How about Tobias Harris? He’s a Long Island native, a fine player, and should have made the All-Star Game this season. Harris would fit right into the power forward slot, giving Brooklyn the shooting they’ve so desperately needed. He would be a very good signing, and he moves the needle in a series against Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, or Philly.
But it’s unclear so far if Harris has the killer instinct Brooklyn needs in its next star. We will find out as the Sixers make their run toward a championship.
One popular move that sticks out: Julius Randle, who played with Russell in Los Angeles for both their rookie and sophomore seasons. Randle is a load inside and has turned himself into a serviceable percent three-point shooter. He will almost certainly decline his player option on the 2019-20 season, worth just $9 million, after he averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the Pelicans.
Another move that makes sense: Nikola Mirotic, an aggressive three-point shooting power forward with range out to 30 feet. Mirotic averaged 16.7 points on 37 percent shooting from deep in New Orleans before his role diminished following a midseason trade to Milwaukee. Mirotic would provide floor spacing Brooklyn so desperately needs.
(Update: Mirotic was exposed in the playoffs as an inconsistent shooter and an awful defender. Brooklyn should steer clear.)
Two useful veterans: Al-Farouq Aminu and Trevor Ariza. Both would be excellent replacements for Treveon Graham, who was supposed to be Brooklyn’s rugged 3-and-D signing, but lost the three after shooting 40 percent from deep in Charlotte. Portland is already over the salary cap next season and may be limited in the type of contract it can offer Aminu. Ariza will become a free agent after a disastrous second half of the season in Washington.
My favorite idea: Go after JaMychal Green. He’s an unrestricted free agent and a Swiss army knife of a power forward who spaces the floor on one end and defends multiple positions on the other. One season with Brooklyn’s vaunted player development staff should turn him into even more valuable of an asset for this team.
Another good veteran: Markieff Morris. The Thunder won’t be able to retain him next season, and after injuries inhibited his production, it’s fair to question whether they should bring him back anyway. At his best, Morris is an enforcer, the type of player Brooklyn needs in its front court, especially if he’s hitting his threes consistently. Hopefully he gets healthy, no matter where he lands.
One out-of-the-box idea: I had T.J. Warren in this slot, but he was traded to Indiana. I was also made aware of his shortcomings on the defensive end.
Other interesting free agents for Brooklyn include Wesley Matthews, Terrence Ross, restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr., Jabari Parker, and DeMarcus Cousins. Brooklyn has options. The Nets don’t have to make a perfect choice, but they can’t make a bad one.
Brooklyn should also re-sign Ed Davis, because Ed Davis is very good in his role as a back-up rim protector.
Finally, let the market establish D’Angelo Russell’s value
Russell is a restricted free agent with a cap hold of $21.1 million until he and the Nets agree to a contract or say goodbye. He became the poster boy for player development in Brooklyn, a young player shunned by Magic Johnson in Los Angeles who then morphed into an All-Star after his trade.
But while Russell had an All-Star caliber regular season, his performance in the playoffs left a lot to be desired. He averaged 19.4 points in the series against the 76ers, but shot just 34.5 percent from the field and less than 32 percent from three. In Brooklyn’s elimination Game 5, Russell scored just eight points on 3-of-16 shooting from the field.
Where do the Nets value Russell? More importantly, how do other teams value him across the league? The Rockets gave Clint Capela five years, $90 million, and the Magic retained Aaron Gordon with a four-year, $80 million deal. Those deals could be the floor in Russell’s contract discussions. They could also be the ceiling, if other teams don’t see him as an alpha superstar.
Brooklyn can pay Russell more money and offer a fifth season versus competing teams that are capped at four-year offers — if it chooses to do so. It can also match any competing offer sheet that Russell signs, though the only difference in a contract Brooklyn comes on the final year of the deal, not in Year 1.
What’s clear is that Brooklyn has endless opportunity to upgrade its roster. Marks and his front office staff have done a remarkable job dragging the Nets out of the gutter and into the spotlight.
Brooklyn couldn’t ask to be in a better place. They almost can’t go wrong with any free agent they sign.